Now Here’s An Idea: Hospitality In Higher Education

I’m devouring The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal, by Parker Palmer, Arthur Zajonc, and Megan Scribner right now. It’s a good read. It’s a thought-provoking read. It’s an inspiring read. It gives me hope.

One premise put forth by Palmer is the idea that a key virtue in higher education that is not always present is hospitality. He says it much better than I can summarize, so here goes his argument:

Learning spaces need to be hospitable spaces not merely because kindness is a good idea but because real education requires rigor. In a counterintuitive way, hospitality supports rigor by supporting community, and the proof can be found in everyday classroom experience.

Pedagogical rigor requires more than a professor doing a rigorous solo act, which can feel more like rigor mortis from where the student sits. A classroom becomes rigorous when a student is able to raise his or her hand and say, “I disagree with what you just said, professor.” Or, at even greater personal risk, “I disagree with what my friend in the second row just said.” Or, pulling out all the stops, “Excuse me, I don’t understand anything that’s been said in here for the past two weeks. Could someone please explain?”

Admitting ignorance and encountering diverse viewpoints on facts and interpretations require us to clarify our assertions, explain ourselves at deeper levels and perhaps, mirabile dictu, even change our minds. Professors who encourage student behaviors such as these invite true intellectual rigor, the kind that emerges from a community of inquiry and is far more educational than a nonstop diet of “rigorous” lectures. From where the students sit, these behaviors are also riskier than keeping one’s head down and taking notes. That kind of behavior is not going to happen in a class that lacks hospitality, a class where people feel too threatened to say anything that might get them crosswise with the professor or other students. (pgs. 29-30)

I read this passage and I found myself asking this: What would an entire university dedicated to hospitality, as Palmer describes, look like? How might it be organized? Might it be a “learning paradigm college” as John Tagg calls for? Might we engage in assessment as an act of care, as I keep yammering about? Might we look at academic disciplines differently, at credits and seat time and accreditation and transcripts and requirements and learning outcomes and and and … and all that, differently? I am thinking that the simple (yet complex) virtue of hospitality, well-developed and enacted across an institution, could in fact result in a transformation of the academy, as the subtitle of this text suggests.

And I am also thinking that hospitality is not at all a bad place for true renewal and transformation in higher education to begin. In fact, it might be the only place from which people feel invited and welcome to contribute to real change.

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Think Again

GREAT NEWS EVERYONE!

Apparently there’s now an app for critical thinking! Read all about it here:

Critical Thinking: There’s An App For That

Ditch your Liberal Arts education – who needs it?  And hey – you no longer need to engage in dialogue or reflection with others — what a waste of your time! And reading, writing, and learning math? Nah – don’t bother!  And learning about ethical frameworks? Or what it means to be human? Or science, art, music, history, literature, sociology, etc? Money down the drain, I say. Just download this app and soon you’ll be able to think your way out of a paper bag! As it promises:

The ‘Think-O-Meter’  app challenges your thinking and helps you develop a Sherlock Holmes-like attention to the evidence at hand. Think through dozens of scenarios and test your ability to separate reliable facts from assumptions, focus on the relevant information, and think critically to get the right answer.

Wait. . .

WAIT!

The “right” answer??? What does this mean, the “right” answer?

Hmmm … it must not work very well. Not many people I know who think critically would claim there is a “right” answer to many problems. They might even go so far as to frame different questions, or pose new scenarios.  Or at least say, “You know what? I think that’s an ill-formed problem. Let’s consider a different way of approaching it.”

Wow. Total bummer! I guess the developers of the Think-O-Meter need to think again. Too bad there’s not an app for that!

Preparing For The Inevitable Shock of Change

Marylhurst University Bell Tower

Let me recommend that you PrattleNoggers out there (yeah you — you know who you are) take the time to read this open letter to George Philip, President of the State University of New York at Albany, written by Gregory Petsko from Brandeis University, on the importance of the Liberal Arts and humanities (different entities, BTW)  in a college education. Petsko argues for more than a well-rounded education, however; he argues for carefully attending to the social and cultural responsibilities of universities in general. This one paragraph from his letter perhaps best exemplifies this very responsibility:

Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn’t a question for science alone; it’s a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including – especially including – the humanities and arts. Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I’m right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. [italics added]

Wow – what it means to be human?!? Yeah, that’s a biggie!

Here’s another excerpt from Petsko’s letter that reminds me why such depth and breadth of learning is so very important:

I know one of your arguments is that not every place should try to do everything. Let other institutions have great programs in classics or theater arts, you say; we will focus on preparing students for jobs in the real world. Well, I hope I’ve just shown you that the real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today’s backwater is often tomorrow’s hot field. [italics added] And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren’t too narrowly trained.

We need students to be prepared for change, not just for jobs.  As David Brooks has written, studying the humanities will make a person more employable because they will be able to read and write well, will deeply understand human emotion, can think analogically, and can “befriend” what he calls “The Big Shaggy,” behaviors and phenomena that are difficult to explain. Of the latter, Brooks writes:

The observant person goes through life asking: Where did that come from? Why did he or she act that way? The answers are hard to come by because the behavior emanates from somewhere deep inside The Big Shaggy.

Technical knowledge stops at the outer edge. If you spend your life riding the links of the Internet, you probably won’t get too far into The Big Shaggy either, because the fast, effortless prose of blogging (and journalism) lacks the heft to get you deep below.

But over the centuries, there have been rare and strange people who possessed the skill of taking the upheavals of thought that emanate from The Big Shaggy and representing them in the form of story, music, myth, painting, liturgy, architecture, sculpture, landscape and speech. These men and women developed languages that help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them. They left rich veins of emotional knowledge that are the subjects of the humanities.

As is most often the case, none of these excerpts alone makes the case as well as the whole. Read the wholes — the original texts — and get into the depth and breadth of Petsko’s and Brooks’ arguments.  And then when you’re ready, relish your own education for all that it’s worth, just as I have.

My Third And Final Major Was English

David Brooks has written an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times called History for Dollars in which he advocates for studying the humanities, and it has me nogging.

Thanks to quinn.anya on Flickr for making this image available.

Brooks argues that studying the humanities will make a person more employable because they will be able to read and write well, will deeply understand human emotion, can think analogically, and can “befriend” what he calls “The Big Shaggy,” behaviors and phenomena that are difficult to explain. Of the latter, Brooks writes:

The observant person goes through life asking: Where did that come from? Why did he or she act that way? The answers are hard to come by because the behavior emanates from somewhere deep inside The Big Shaggy.

Technical knowledge stops at the outer edge. If you spend your life riding the links of the Internet, you probably won’t get too far into The Big Shaggy either, because the fast, effortless prose of blogging (and journalism) lacks the heft to get you deep below.

But over the centuries, there have been rare and strange people who possessed the skill of taking the upheavals of thought that emanate from The Big Shaggy and representing them in the form of story, music, myth, painting, liturgy, architecture, sculpture, landscape and speech. These men and women developed languages that help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them. They left rich veins of emotional knowledge that are the subjects of the humanities.

I object to his implication that blogs “lack the heft” of critical thought and inquiry, but I have to agree with almost every other proposition of his editorial. Let me tell you why.

My first major in college was journalism. I had spent the previous 3 years in high school tirelessly advocating for Freedom Of The Press and a separation of advertising and editorial (my main objective being to convince the school administrators that placing a Planned Parenthood ad in the student newspaper paper was not an endorsement for having sex). It made perfect sense that I would be a journalism major: I had prior experience on the newspaper and yearbook, passion, and it could be practical. I could get a job.

My second major was speech pathology and audiology. I changed it from journalism about a month into college because I decided I wanted to try to do something different from what I had been doing. It wasn’t an analytical decision at the time; it was more like wanderlust meets “I want to be employable after graduation.”

I liked this new major because I was learning in multiple disciplines: anatomy, language development and linguistics, psychology, neurology, etc. We also got to look at cadavers, which was scary and horrifying and amazing, all at the same time. However, in my first session in the speech clinic, when a distraught but forceful mother of a child with a bilateral lisp was insistent that we “FIX HIM!!!” in time for a speech he had to give at his church, my clinical supervisor turned to me and said, “Welcome to your future.” An off-the-cuff comment, but I listened.

My third and final major was English because I liked to write and I liked to read, and I didn’t want to spend time taking courses that I didn’t like. I temporarily set aside my pragmatic paycheck-oriented concerns and decided to focus on learning. And with that came great freedom and deep engagement and, as Brooks argues and I fully believe, marketability.

I have applied lessons from my English courses — from all of those Australian novels and Middle English Prologues and poems and essays and tree structures and Latin roots —  to every aspect of my work. From supervising and supporting employees, to preparing and monitoring budgets, to writing grants, to giving presentations to friendly and challenging audiences, to teaching and mentoring, to learning new computer programs or programming my voice mail, to communicating with various stakeholders and advocating with fierce grace, I call upon my English major skills and capacities of mind each and every day.

Brooks implies that there is money associated with a humanities education; I suspect that might be true (it has not been, for me). But what I DO have is compassion, creativity, energy, communication, and, in general, happiness with what I can and like to do.

My third and final major was English.  And as for The Big Shaggy? I’ll continue to nog on it, with heft (eh hem!), because, as Brooks asks:

…doesn’t it make sense to spend some time in the company of these languages — learning to feel different emotions, rehearsing different passions, experiencing different sacred rituals and learning to see in different ways?

Yes. Yes it does.

Are You Untouchable?

Recently, Thomas Friedman wrote an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times called The New Untouchables in which he argued that the economic crisis can be attributed to, in part, our poor educational systems. Here’s an excerpt that I think is key:

A Washington lawyer friend recently told me about layoffs at his firm. I asked him who was getting axed. He said it was interesting: lawyers who were used to just showing up and having work handed to them were the first to go because with the bursting of the credit bubble, that flow of work just isn’t there. But those who have the ability to imagine new services, new opportunities and new ways to recruit work were being retained. They are the new untouchables.

That is the key to understanding our full education challenge today. Those who are waiting for this recession to end so someone can again hand them work could have a long wait. Those with the imagination to make themselves untouchables — to invent smarter ways to do old jobs, energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to attract old customers or new ways to combine existing technologies — will thrive. Therefore, we not only need a higher percentage of our kids graduating from high school and college — more education — but we need more of them with the right education.

The “right” education is likely one that doesn’t just deliver content to a student who is an empty head waiting to be filled with facts. Instead, the “right” education is one that develops people to be critical thinkers, good communicators, problem-solvers, and as Friedman alludes to, to be self-directed. The untouchables use their imaginations, see things unseen, question the “way things are done,” and take initiative to do things differently. Untouchables don’t watch the clock, don’t wait to be told what to do, and don’t blame others for their own weaknesses or mistakes. Untouchables do learn! In my mind, these are the qualities of the untouchables, and these are the kind of people I would fight hard to keep if they worked for me (and I have!).

So give it some thought: Are you an untouchable? What are you doing to be or become untouchable? What could you do differently to try to be more untouchable?

It may not only be worth your job or your paycheck;  it may, in fact, be worth your mind!

Want To Change The World?

Today is Liberal Arts Education day here on PrattleNog. My head is spinning with thoughts about the tremendous personal and social benefits of such because three items have crossed my path related to this question: Why is a liberal arts education important? These three items have raised for me four BIG CONCERNS. Here goes:

First, Inside Higher Ed posted an interesting opinion piece today titled The Case of the Disappearing Liberal Arts College. The authors argue that change in higher education is essential and inevitable, and that liberal arts institutions continue to be critical to well-educated citizens.  Their proposal? That private philanthropic foundations take the lead in guiding changes to higher education thoughtfully and carefully.

BIG CONCERN #1: Are private philanthropic foundations positioned well enough or powerfully enough to take on the “market forces” that the authors describe? I applaud the authors for suggesting next steps, but I fear that their proposed next steps are not strong or significant enough, partly because of the next item that crossed my path.

Here is this next item: A colleague sent me the link to this video of Liz Coleman, the President of Bennington College, speaking to the importance of a liberal arts education. One of the key things she says is this:

When the impulse is to change the world, the academy is more likely to engender a learned helplessness than to create a sense of empowerment.

BIG CONCERN#2: Don’t you think the “academy” — as a place of learning and transformation — should be doing exactly the opposite? (A side note: I think in many ways my own institution often does, but sometimes I think it may be more accidental than intentional.) Watch the whole video because Coleman makes some very good points.

Finally, closer to home, we are wrapping up phase one of our Envisioning Marylhurst process. One of the strategic themes identified in this process — one that I worked very hard to shape during the first conference after a dichotomy between a liberal arts education and a professional education was suggested — is this:  “Pioneer the integration of the liberal arts and professional studies to support lifelong learning.” The key word in this phrase is integration.

BIG CONCERN #3: We really need to take this work seriously if we want to provide the kind of education that Coleman proposes: “a truly cross-disciplinary education — one that dynamically combines all areas of study to address the great problems of our day.”

BIG CONCERN #4: Is this the kind of institution we want to continue to be?

Wow. I sure hope so.